Accustomed to adulation wherever he goes, Gustavo Dudamel may have blinked when he walked on to the platform for the opening concert of the LA Phil’s London residency: he found a far from full house. Not even the much-hyped “magic” of the world’s most visible classical musician could sell an evening devoted to living composers. Dudamel’s managers might have had better luck if they had packaged him with the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, playing a brace of 20th-century potboilers (Dudamel doesn’t really do pre-1900). But if no London orchestra would attempt such a programme, why should Londoners pay attention to a little-known orchestra from California?
This masks an important point about the Dudamel phenomenon. He is using his celebrity to champion classical music as a progressive force in society, not as another opportunity to recycle its past, as most maestros do. Much of the LA Phil’s residency involved daytime education projects, for which the musicians deserve credit: most visiting orchestras are mere tourists. So, as a mission statement, the residency was impressive, even if as a musical statement the opening event was unsatisfactory.
Two of the works profiled the composer as performer. John Adams conducted his Son of Chamber Symphony, one of his least impressive pieces. Repetitious and overlong, it amounts to much rhythmic ado about nothing, its motivation deriving entirely from aggravated syncopations, not all of them clear in this performance. Next came a percussion concerto from Joseph Pereira, the LA Phil’s principal timpanist. Drawing, like Adams’ piece, on Latino inflexions, it came across as two separate works: the first movement amounted to a lot of noisy drum-beating, while the second and third consisted of murky note-spinning on marimba. Apart from two orchestral percussion players, the accompaniment barely registered.
Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti, a Barbican co-commission, had something more substantial to say, and said it with greater concentration. A fast-slow-fast urban tone-poem in unmistakably European vein, it generates waves of sophisticated music out a core of relatively simple ideas, its momentum increasingly punctuated by a sequence of recurring brass chords – before fading inconclusively. Dudamel and his musicians lavished it with agility and virtuosity.